When we think about great church music, the qualifier “Reformed” is not usually the first that comes to mind. More than likely we may think about the Lutheran chorale, or the Anglican anthem, or even the great Renaissance polyphony that adorned the motets and the ordinary of the Roman Catholic Mass. But "Reformed"? Hardly. This is mostly the case because of our mistaken understanding of Calvin’s theology of music. Often falsely cited as disdaining music, Calvin desired that music, in particular the Psalms, should have a major role in the liturgy of the church. To that end, he directed the assembling of most likely the greatest single hymnal or Psalter ever published in modern church history.
a. Origin of the Genevan Psalter
The name Genevan Psalter refers to Geneva. The final version of the Psalms, initiated by John Calvin, was published in 1562 in Geneva. The complete Psalter contained 150 psalms on 125 different melodies, the Ten Commandments, and the Song of Simeon.
Listed composers of the melodies were Louis Bourgeois, Mattias Greiter, Guillaume Franc and Maistre Pierre. (Maistre Pierre was presumable a cantor in Geneva.) Melodies were meant to be used unanimous. Harmonized setting (Clause Goudimel) were for use at home.
Some people claim that the composers used secular melodies for the Psalms. However, the only relation that can be suggested is the use of melodic components from the musical modi. And it is not likely that Calvin, who considered the development of Psalm melodies as most important, could accept the copy of secular melodies.
However, there is a clear relation between some of the Genevan tunes and Gregorian hymns and sequences. For example Psalm 80 and Psalm 141 are related to respectively the hymn "Conditor alme siderum" and the sequence "Victimae paschali laudes". Psalm 31 and 71 are very close to the "Crudelis Herodes", and "Kyrie fons bonitatis" from the 10th Century contains key elements of Psalm 33. Psalm 51 is close related to "Kyrie Deus sempiterne" from the 11th century. (Many more examples are available, see the various studies of Rev. H. Hasper).
b. Structure of rhythm and tempo
Characteristic in the melodies are - besides the long note at the end of the line - two "values" in the musical notes: the quarter note and the half note. Despite of the syncope's in the melodies, in general there is no problem at all with singing the melodies by the average church member. (Which does not mean that every church member per definition is familiar with all the different melodies.)
The tempo of the singing was originally the same as the secular melodies of those days: 68-72 beats a minute, which is the average heart beat of a human being. In our notation the beat is at every half note. There are other factors influencing the tempo, such as the acoustics and the number of singers.
Like other arts, music has many different styles. This also applies to the church music. In case we would ignore the diversity and assume there is only one style, we reduce the wealth to colorless uniformity.
Several factors determine the style of the music: the origin, tonality and the setting, order and extent of intervals, structure of rhythm, and sometimes the latent harmony, which can make accompaniment mandatory.
Melodies from the Genevan Psalter contain a very strong "horizontal" vocal structure, which allows singing without accompaniment. The intervals are not larger than a perfect fifth. Interval orders like a "third" and a "fourth", a "major third" and a "minor third" are regular.
Melodies from later date (after 1600) require mostly accompaniment. We find built-in harmony in these melodies. An example is the hymn "Holy, holy, holy".
Restricting ourselves to the scales the melodies are written in, we notice that after 1600 gradually mostly two different key's are becoming dominant: the major and the minor scale. Before 1600 the number of scales were 8, in the 16th century 4 extra scales were added. (An interesting note on that: some song composers of the 20th returned to these scales in their songs.)
The major scales are a big part of today's music. For people who view music as acoustic wallpaper, music in different scales than major and minor is strange, unfitting in our age. Many church musicians adapt their playing to the expectation of many church members, who through daily experiences only require to do away with the silence.
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The modes ("old scales") from 'before 1600' are not per definition church modes, because they were used in all music, in secular music as well. Every single scale has its own character, for example "joyful" or "wrathful".
Every melody in the vocal tone scales has a dominant (rule tone) and a tonica (rest tone). Melodies can be described as follows: an ensemble of tones with musical tension around the dominant which finally finds rest in the tonica. An example is Psalm 65.
The A has a role as 'dominant', while the end-tone, D, is the 'rest tone'. The melody plays so to speak around the A and finds rest in the D.
The modes were not known as scales the way as we know them today (eight notes) but they had only six tones (hexachord). Extensive musical theory regarding the modes is left outside this document for now.
The eight modes are as follows:
In the 16th Century, four more modes are added:
Today we are used to read melodies in their absolute notation. In order to avoid lots of extra lines above and below the bar, the melodies are transposed and got key signatures (flat, sharp) on the lines. For example the original notation of Psalm 100 (Phrygian), in the Book of Praise with two flats was originally written without key signatures, one tone higher. Also Psalm 65 (Aeolian) would originally be written without key signatures one tone lower (Dorian).
Accidental key signatures in the original modes are introduced upon influence by polyphonic music. However already in the 12th Century there was already a plea for accidental key signatures (John de Garlandia 1190-1250). In the 14th Century (Ars Nova) many accidentals are added to the end of lines. Until 1600 this was not written down but generally practiced.
Especially melodies sung without harmony or accompaniment should not have any accidental key signatures. Total surrendering to the major/minor scales make that in many churches the accidentals are still practiced. Some examples: Psalm 27, line 1; Psalm 68, line 1; Psalm 130, line 3; Psalm 150 line 1.
(Note: In most of the the Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands the accidental key signatures are not sung anymore and the psalms are sung in the church modes. This change was successfully implemented in a short timeframe, primarily thanks to a joint effort of ministers, organists, professional musicians, theological university staff, and all elementary and high school staff.)
For church musicians in the reformed churches who take their job seriously, it is indispensable to know and understand the modes.
The Psalm melodies were composed to sound optimal in unison performance. In accompaniment of these melodies, this knowledge will assist the musician significantly in distinguishing the modes and the notes and incorporating them in the harmonic rules.
The original Psalm melodies as written in Geneva, and used throughout the centuries in many countries, until today, had a significant impact on the development of the song of the Church. Many musicians with different background valuate these melodies highly today. These melodies will have impact on the church song of the future and they can not be ignored.
1. What is Metre?
Metre (British spelling of meter)
"The specific rhythmic pattern of a stanza, as determined by the kind and number of lines: rhythm in music; especially, the division into measures, or bars, having a uniform number of beats."
Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, World Publishing Co. 1957
As used in church hymns, metre is the pattern of syllable counts in the lines of a verse. For example in the following well known hymns, with the syllables marked:
The1 Lord's2 my3 shep4- herd5, I'll6 not7 want8
He1 makes2 me3 down4 to5 lie6
In1 pas2- tures3 green:4 he5 lead6 -eth7 me8
The1 qui2- et3 wa4- ters5 by6
Notice the pattern of the number of syllables in each line. The pattern is 8,6,8,6. This is the "metre" of the verse—8,6,8,6. The 8,6,8,6 pattern is also called "Common Metre."
Common metre is often abbreviated as "CM". Two other patterns that are frequently seen are called short metre (SM) and long metre (LM).
Short metre has two less syllables on the first line. The pattern is therefore 6,6,8,6:
Blest1 be2 the3 tie4 that5 binds6
Our1 hearts2 in3 Christ4 -ian5 love6
The1 fel2 -low3 -ship4 of5 kind6- red7 minds8
Is1 like2 to3 that4 a5- bove6.
Long metre is 8,8,8,8. Here is an example of long metre, (without the numbers) on the melody of "The Old One Hundred):
All1 peo2 ple3 that4 on5 earth6 do7 dwell8,
Sing to the Lord with cheer- ful voice!
Serve Him with joy, His prai- ses tell;
Come ye be - fore Him and re- joice!
Common metre, short metre and long metre are almost always referred to by their letter abbreviations (CM, SM, LM). Other metres, of which there are many, are simply referred to by their pattern. Some examples are: 8,7,8,7 and 10,10,10,10.
Some songs do not follow a regular metrical pattern and are designated "irregular" metre.
2. Use of Metres in the Music
Words are generally grouped according to a single "repetition" of the metre of the verse. The verses can be used "as is" with appropriate music. For example, the version of Psalm 23 above is most often sung to a tune named "Crimond," which consists of a single repetition of common metre (CM) music.
Tunes such as Crimond (and the short metre (SM) tune we use with "Blest be The Tie That Binds") are fine for shorter songs, but they can quickly become monotonous when used for longer songs. Something should be used to break the monotony, or to delay its onset. One option for breaking monotony is the use of a refrain, or the repetition of the last one or two lines of a verse. When the goal is to adhere as closely as possible to the original Psalm or to sing as much as possible of a longer Psalm then a refrain or repetition would interfere with the goal by introducing unnecessary words.
Something else is needed to allow to sing more of the Psalm without the monotony of repeating a short, simple tune too many times. The obvious solution is to use a tune that is "longer" than just a single repetition of a metre. The most simple approach is, to use a tune that extends to two repetitions of a standard metre, which is often referred to as a "Doubled Metre" tune.
Sometimes a song will use two repetitions of a metrical pattern (the pattern is said to have been "doubled") Doubled patterns are indicated by adding a "D" to the metre designation. Doubled common metre, for example, would be abbreviated CMD (occasionally DCM).
Another example would be 8,7,8,7.If words are written for a standard metre, they will almost always work well with a doubled version of the same metre.
3. Why Metre?
Basically understanding the principle of metre allows anyone to sing songs and hymns and combine texts and music. In general this is quite simple, once there is a good understanding of the basic concepts of metre.
Many poets over the last centuries have created songs based on Psalms and other scriptures, which follow these basic metres.
For example, the Scottish Psalter contains all 150 Psalms; most of them set in Common Metre (126.96.36.199). Isaac Watts wrote a Psalter that contains several versions of each Psalm, one version in each of these metres. Many of these different Psalters are currently available.
Not only have many of the words of Holy Scripture been set into these standard metres, there is also a lot of public domain music available in these metres. It is therefore possible to sing these songs by simply combining a setting of the words with music written in the same metre.
This appears to be essentially what Dwight Armstrong did with many of his songs. Dwight apparently had access to one or more Protestant hymnals that contained "Reformation settings" of the Psalms and other Biblical passages. Instead of using existing music, he wrote his own music and adapted the words from the Protestant source to greater or lesser extent. People have identified several of the Psalms that he appears to have drawn from this kind of source.
This is also the way many churches went about creating their church hymns (especially the Presbyterian church). They would both use existing words and create their own music, or they would use music that they liked and choose words that matched its metre. In other cases they used existing words and music, but with slight changes to bring the words in closer agreement with their particular doctrinal outlook.
- The use of metre was introduced and used originally to simplify singing in the church. Singing had too less priority in many churches (first in England and Scotland) what caused a downfall of the singing in the church. Most hymns in the English language are using a certain metre.
- Metre forces text structures in poems/songs to a limited number of syllables.
- Metre allows to sing multiple song texts on the same melody (part) easily. It is not possible to maintain a unique character between the text and melody when a song can be sung on many different melodies.
- When people use metre there is a risk of monotonous melodies due to the limitations of the possible variations in melody. This can have the consequence that only a few stanzas are sung, when only a whole song is a proper representation of the message. When one tries to solve the problem of monotonous melodies, it can be difficult for instance to stay close to the original bible text or to avoide usage of unnecessary words.
- Using metre allows people to be familiar with only a limited number of melodies and sing many different texts on it. Metre simplifies the musical intensity and depth of songs. This development can be not-challenging to singers, and this can also estrange singers from songs that are not made up of a certain metre.